Recently I gave a reading from Nothing Sacred, a work of historical fiction set in late Republican Rome, in Canberra, at the once-residence of historian Manning Clark whose A History of Australia is regarded as the best-known general history of our country.
Historians link evidence with arguments to build reasoned, responsible interpretations of the past. What would this audience of historians and classicists make of my novel, I wondered? Historical fiction is a creative construction of the past – it combs the archives but reenlivens history into fiction in imaginative ways.
Nevertheless, to construct historical fiction requires historical inquiry and creative delivery.
For a writer, engaging with history entails more than just researching the facts. Of course I did research, extensively: Catullan poetry; Latin and Greek etymology; coins; naming conventions; architecture and monuments; political speeches; ancient place names and geographical boundaries; agricultural methods and food preparation; festivals and artefacts; gender and sexuality; mythology and religion; slavery; gladiatorial combat; and use of animals for pleasure and show.
But in deciding what to do with the facts, I took the advice of Robert Harris. His first rule for writing historical fiction is not to use your research, or at any rate to use only a tenth of it. Harris warns against ‘the temptation to stick in facts just because you’ve discovered them. In the best historical fiction, the reader can sense the presence of the research that isn’t being used, out there in the shadows…’
The best historical fiction, accordingly, brings the past to life by weaving fiction out of facts. But as Tom Stoppard cautioned: ‘Just because it’s true doesn’t make it interesting’.
In my research I came across so many facts that I wondered – what to leave in? I realised gradually that that would depend on how I represented the times. Many other writers shared my fascination with ancient Roman history. How could my ‘imaginative ways’ differ from theirs?
As I read the historical fiction of contemporaries – Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa Series, Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Colleen McCullough’s Caesar’s Women, followed by the works which had filled the fascination with Rome for an earlier generation of readers – Robert Graves I, Claudius and Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March – I resolved how to differentiate my representation of the times.
I found my interest piqued – not by what existing representations told me, but rather what they didn’t tell me; the facts that weren’t readily accessible were what I was most curious to learn. I wanted to learn about attitudes to sexuality and fertility, what Romans thought about slavery, and what sort of behaviours they considered transgressive.
I realised historical fictions can fill the gap between the pasts we are permitted to know and those we wish to know.
My approach to history would then entail a search for facts that on the whole are deemed of minimal interest and are invisible in dominant representations of the period and its powerful elite men.
I learnt, for example, that in late-Republican Rome crocodile dung diaphragms were a method of contraception, that exoleti were over-age male prostitutes, that metal bolts were inserted in the foreskins of gladiators to prevent sex and preserve their strength, that verba nuptae were obscenities in the bedroom uttered by women, and that to call someone sesquiculus was to call them ‘an arsehole and a half’.
Such an approach to history shaped my creative delivery. I devised events – historically informed contexts – in which to embed these fascinating facts; a situation, for instance, in which a character could utter a particular expletive, or enact a particular cultural practice. I chose to revitalise the classic means of writing about the ancient world the first person prose memoir, and instead use poetic representation, ‘verse vignettes’, short scenes in which characters advance the events through their speech and actions.
I also wanted to differentiate my characters from other historical novels set in the time – so Nothing Sacred would not solely be about the first triumvirate leadership of Crassus, Caesar and Pompey. I wanted to write also about characters whose deeds, as women, foreigners, slaves or associates of the elite are overlooked in historical fiction of Rome. And rather than create a dominant narrator, I decided I would disperse ‘authority’; each of the characters would have something to say.
Most of my characters were based on historical personages of varying acclaim. Intermarriage for status and political gain was common among the twenty or so elite families in late-Republican Rome, so I had to learn about their intricate chains of relation; Cornelia, who married Crassus, would later be the fifth wife of Pompey, and so on.
My approach to these ‘personal’ histories included gleaning insights from epistolary exchanges such as Cicero’s Letters to Atticus. Cicero’s first-hand account of the times revealed his motivations to such an extent that I was more mindful of the machinations at Rome and could build these into fictional events.
At some point I realised that history could not offer all the characters that the narrative of Nothing Sacred would need. ‘Imaginative ways’ thus account for an extra character or three – including Manius Graechus, ‘the Greek’, whom I devised as a ‘foil’ character to Catullus, the ‘non-conformist poet of means’.
I also had to decide how to represent ‘the times’. Would I emphasise historicism or presentism in my work? If I chose the former – to honour historical authenticity and factuality – I could risk making my representation of the times inflexible, unresponsive to fiction’s needs. If I chose the latter – imposing present-day attitudes on the past could stifle the ‘otherness’ of antiquity.
I faced this dilemma anew in each vignette: with each change of character, event and context. In ‘Gargantuan’ for instance, I recount – in the voice of the character, Cicero – the killing of twenty elephants (an actuality). To do so, I had to think about this death as a Roman of the times would (authenticity). But to engage today’s readers – who would likely view the killing with revulsion – and draw attention to the significance of the incident for the times, I aestheticised the scene, and made the language as beautiful and beguiling as I could.
To take antiquity out from under glass – to embrace the particularity and otherness of the times – internalise and re-present all that I have learned, into a coherent and credible textual world: this process by which I weave fiction out of facts, is as revelatory to me as history itself.
Linda Weste is a writer, reviewer, editor, and teacher. She received the Felix Meyer Scholarship for Creative Writing while completing a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing) at the University of Melbourne. Her verse novel set in late Republican Rome, Nothing Sacred, was highly commended in the Fellowship of Australian Writers 2015 Anne Elder Award for a first book of poetry. Nothing Sacred is available from Australian Scholarly Publishing http://www.scholarly.info/book/443/